The Indo–Pacific Axis

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(LOOKEAST carries excerpts from a very interesting book edited by top academic Baladas Ghoshal and Satis Chandra called “Indo–Pacific Axis: Peace and Prosperity or Conflict “. The excerpts are from the introductory chapter by Baladas Ghoshal, one of India’s leading experts on South–east Asia, and now secretary general of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies. The contributions are interesting, including some Vietnamese strategic experts.)

India’s naval activities in the Indian Ocean have grown in the last decade, cited as a ‘legitimate area of interest’ in the Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2004 and further developed in December 2006 by the then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta expanding the conceptual construct of India’s ‘greater strategic neighbourhood’ to include potential sources of oil and gas imports located across the globe from Venezuela to the Sakhalin Islands, highlighting priorities the Indian Navy places on energy security and sea—lane protection. The 2007 Indian Maritime Strategy identified the northern Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the sea lanes crisscrossing the ocean, and the ‘narrow seas’ providing access to it as ‘primary areas’ of interest. India considers the South China Sea (alongside other bodies of water) an outer, or ‘secondary’, theatre for the exercise of sea power, ‘Areas of secondary interest’ as per the maritime strategy ‘will come in where there is a direct connection with areas of primary interest, or where they impinge on the deployment of future maritime forces.’

The South China Sea, therefore, is naturally a part of its maritime sphere and strategy. It adjoins primary zones of interest in the Malacca Straits and the Bay of Bengal. India’s Look East thrust involving the ASEAN and the ‘rimland’ states farther afield, like Japan and South Korea, has been a part and parcel of its maritime strategy and naval diplomacy. India’s naval flotillas streaming into Asian ports, dropping anchor at Limpopo to showcase Indian—-designed missile destroyers, holding annual joint exercises in the Andaman Sea with the smaller littoral navies, exercising offshore during extended ‘goodwill’ tours with the host country’s naval vessels and, generally, establishing a presence in proximal as well as distant seas has been a phenomenon in recent years.

 

Chinese scholars note that ‘India has repeatedly declared that it has security interests in the Malacca Strait, and its navy strategy stresses on maintaining its “legitimate interests” from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait’. In 2000, the Indian Navy had sent warships, tankers and submarines to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam for bilateral exercises and as gestures of goodwill

 

In combating piracy in the Malacca Straits, the Indian Navy has been taking an active role along with the navies of the littoral states. An example of India’s naval activism was the recovery in 1999 of a Japanese ship, MV Alondra Rainbow, from pirates through its coordinated networking with international maritime agencies. The recovery of the ship supported the idea of joint patrolling in the region to deal effectively with such incidences. India, together with Japan and other ASEAN countries has a high stake in the safety of the sea lanes of communication, as a major part of its trade passes through them and any disturbance will affect its economy to a considerable extent. India has a significant naval build—up at the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and has created a special Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) based on these islands as they are India’s door to the East, ‘to the Malacca Strait which is a “throat channel” for our neighbouring Southeast Asia as well as Far East Asia’. For their part, Chinese scholars note that ‘India has repeatedly declared that it has security interests in the Malacca Strait, and its navy strategy stresses on maintaining its “legitimate interests” from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait’. In 2000, the Indian Navy had sent warships, tankers and submarines to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam for bilateral exercises and as gestures of goodwill. The holding of these exercises in the South China Sea, which China claims as its territory, added a different dimension to India’s naval activism.

Malabar Exercise

India’s Act East policy found expression in its heightened security cooperation with Japan, Australia, and the United States. Strengthening existing security ties with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and deepening cooperation with islands in the Pacific and the Indian oceans are other factors underpinning this policy. Indian pursuit of active security cooperation with most of the countries of the Indo—Pacific region had led many to believe that the Look East Policy has genuinely assumed the Act East Policy, even before Prime Minister Modi announced it in 2014 at ASEAN meeting in Nay Pyi Tau, Myanmar. India and Japan are now fully committed to the joint production of a large, four—engine amphibious aircraft, the Shin Maywa US–2, marking a critical departure for both countries.

For Japan, the US–2 would mark the first major sale of military hardware overseas since the end of the World War II. In fact, Japan is reportedly mulling over a new government financing agency to ensure that money does not hold back the implementation of its recently relaxed export guidelines. Meanwhile, for India, joint production will diversify and boost India’s defence industry, while also adding significant maritime domain awareness and response capacity. Up to 18 short–takeoff–and–landing planes will help patrol a 7,500–km coastline and deliver troops to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, and the Lakshadweep Islands off the south–west coast. India and Japan have also signed a historic civil nuclear cooperation deal in November 2016, opening the door for collaboration between their industries in the field, even as the two countries signed nine other agreements in various areas to bolster bilateral ties.

 

India–Australia relations have got a bigger boost under Modi, who is also taking a less cautious and more self–confident approach to security relations with Australia. Operationalising what amounts to a thickening network of intra–Asian security ties, Modi and Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, have announced a new framework for enhanced security cooperation

 

The agreement, including the one for cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, makes a historic step in their engagement to build a clean energy partnership. India and Australia held a joint naval exercise in 2015 to raise their defence cooperation initiatives to a higher level and strengthen their strategic partnership. India and Australia had participated together in multilateral maritime exercises in Malabar in 2007 and in Milan in 2012. Both sides acknowledged that maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with principles of international law were critical for the growth and prosperity of the Asia–Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. They agreed to continue consultations and cooperation on issues concerning the Asia–Pacific and Indian Ocean regions bilaterally as well as multilaterally, including through the East Asia Summit, the Asean Regional Forum, the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting–Plus, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean RimAssociation for Regional Cooperation (IOR–ARC).

A vital strategic asset in Andaman and Nicobar Islands

India–Australia relations have got a bigger boost under Modi, who is also taking a less cautious and more self–confident approach to security relations with Australia. Operationalising what amounts to a thickening network of intra–Asian security ties, Modi and Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, have announced a new framework for enhanced security cooperation. Addressing the Parliament in Canberra in May 2015, Modi called for doubling down on maritime cooperation. He said that Australia and India share ‘a natural partnership’, are both dependent on the oceans as ‘lifelines’, and harbour growing concern about ‘access and security’. Modi’s Indo–Pacific Doctrine Modi’s evolving doctrine in the Indo–Pacific is also being largely encouraged by regional institutions seeking a greater security role from New Delhi. In the east, the rhetoric has been that India so far has failed to play its role of a security provider in the region. However, under Narendra Modi, there appears to be a significant shift in Delhi’s attitude and willingness to collaborate with regional players in the security domain. Apart from ASEAN, countries from the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) grouping, too, are looking at India to shoulder more of the traditional and non–traditional security responsibilities of the region and take on more of a leadership role.

 

India created the joint Andaman and Nicobar Command. It is the country’s only tri–service command rotating between the army, navy and the air force. That command now includes 15 ships, two navy sea bases, four air force and naval air bases and an army brigade. Although neglected for far too long, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a crucial factor in India’s maritime strategy. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean puts India at an advantageous position in the changing geopolitics of the region

 

In this regard, India also recently held the first Indian Ocean Dialogue under the realm of IORA at the port city of Cochin in the Arabian Sea. With an eye toward growing maritime interests across the Indo–Pacific, in 2001 India created the joint Andaman and Nicobar Command. It is the country’s only tri–service command rotating between the army, navy and the air force. That command now includes 15 ships, two navy sea bases, four air force and naval air bases and an army brigade. Although neglected for far too long, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a crucial factor in India’s maritime strategy. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean puts India at an advantageous position in the changing geopolitics of the region. Known as India’s strategic outpost, the islands are central to India’s engagements with regional navies and can emerge as the focal point of New Delhi’s evolving Indo–Pacific doctrine. According to C. Raja Mohan, India’s leading strategic analyst, Prime Minister Modi is ready to return India to its natural sphere of influence and become the next security provider in the Indo–Pacific region. Now that roughly half of India’s economy is tied to global markets, India’s seaward expansion is logical and inexorable. India has never been as dependent on maritime security as it is today and is likely to become tomorrow. While nuclear deterrence prevents major interstate war on land, India’s future hinges on exploiting free seas and the ability to shape the balance of power hinges on the Indian Navy. In short, contends Mohan, ‘the Modi Doctrine, if there is one, is to pursue strategic influence — through a growing maritime orientation, shaping the Indo–Pacific regional balance of power, reclaiming a lost sphere of influence, and becoming an active participant in regional institutions.’ There is definitely a greater political will within this government to play a more active security role in the region, which is being pursued through engagements and collaborations with key players. ■

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